(This is part of a longer article that appeared in Trail Talk, the newsletter of the Montpelier Section. We’re reprinting it here, with Pete’s permission, because his thoughts and suggestions deserve a wide audience!)
My first encounter with the winter outdoors was a camping trip planned by my Boy Scout troop. Our leader asked us if we wanted to “test ourselves.” Of course, we said yes. Our “planning” consisted of picking a weekend in December and we were simply instructed to “bring lots of clothes.” Off we went into the leafless December woods with our excitement building at the thoughts of braving the elements. The inch or two of new snow on a bed of leaves crunched under our sneakered feet. Once we reached the campsite we were told to construct lean-to shelters for the night and gather lots of firewood. We built a rather large campfire - okay, a near bonfire. With the fire, plus lots of food, hot cocoa and clothing, we were having a great time.
Eventually bedtime rolled around. As my fellow scouts unfurled their big cotton sleeping bags bearing the emblems of their favorite soft-drink, super hero, or cartoon character, I became concerned about staying warm through the night in our open shelter. I went to our leader and voiced my concerns. He said, “Don’t worry, all you need to do is put on as many of your clothes as you can and a hat and you’ll be just fine.” That’s just what we did. We weren’t aware of the potential peril that lay before us.
Thankfully, I fell asleep. Unfortunately it didn’t last very long. I awoke to the sounds of my bunkmate tossing, turning, and groaning. We were soaking wet, shivering, and cold! What was going on? Was it a December rainstorm? Did my canteen open and spill over me? No; we were drenched in our own sweat. It soaked our cotton layers and sapped our body heat, leaving us cold, uncomfortable, awake at 2 a.m., and in a potentially dangerous situation
We woke up the scoutmaster and assistant leader, and they rebuilt the fire and instructed us to remove the wet clothing and replace it with what dry clothing remained. Needless to say, we didn’t get back to bed. We ended up sitting by the fire, groggily waiting for the sun to rise so we could pack up and go back to our heated homes.
I still wonder to this day if any of the other scouts on that trip ever went on another winter overnight. Luckily for me, I learned a thing or two about winter camping before I went out and “tested myself” again. Now, I share this story with others to illustrate an example of critical things not to do when heading into the backcountry in winter. Small errors or bad decisions when it’s cold can quickly turn into life threatening situations. Planning, preparing, and ensuring you have the proper clothing and equipment is essential.
How to prepare for a winter hike
Dress like an onion. Always dress in three distinct layers. Start with a base layer made from wool or one of the many synthetic materials out there like polypropylene. This will “wick” moisture away from your skin. Next, add an insulation layer of wool or synthetic material like fleece to help trap and keep warmth against you. Your top layer should be a waterproof and windproof shell made of nylon or another synthetic and breathable material. Breathable fabric is key to help keep your moisture levels down.
Stay comfortably cool. Add and remove layers depending on your activity level. Carry extra clothing in case you or someone in your party becomes wet from sweat, melting snow, or an accidental fall into a stream.
Put the summer hiking boots away for the season. You’ll need a pair of insulated boots. Felt-lined pac boots are sufficient for lower elevation snowshoe travel. For higher elevation travel or travel above treeline, a plastic mountaineering or “double boot” may be advisable.
Fuel your body. Winter outdoor activities don’t call for diet food! Plenty of food and water are critical to maintaining energy levels and warding off the two main threats of cold weather: hypothermia and frostbite. Bring plenty of high-calorie snacks like gorp, chocolate, cheese, and peanut butter. Keep in mind that the demands of breaking trail may cause you to work harder than you do in the summer.
Your natural inclination is not to drink when it’s cold fight this! A good way to get liquid and sugar and keep warm at the same time is to bring along a thermos of hot chocolate or hot Tang. Avoid caffeine; it dehydrates you and dehydration can hasten the onset of hypothermia.
Keep an “eye on the sky.” As we all know, weather changes rapidly in Vermont. Elevation influences temperature. You’ll lose three to five degrees Fahrenheit for every 1000 feet of elevation climbed. When you add in the factor of wind chill and exposure above treeline, the temperature could be much lower.
Remember: Rain is possible every month of the year, and it will be nearly impossible to stay warm if you get soaked. Always carry a waterproof shell to help you keep dry should you get caught in an unexpected winter rain.
Know where you’re going. Know the area well. Go there in the summer and become as familiar with it as possible. In winter the trail and the woods will look very different and signs and blazes can be buried in deep snow. Contact the GMC to find out if the trailheads to your route and your potential bail-out trails are plowed in the winter. Make sure you know how you’ll get out of the woods in an emergency.
Walk lightly. Unless a trail is very well packed or has only a few inches of snow, you’ll need snowshoes or skis so that “post-holes” are not left in the trail. When post-holes are frozen and filled in with fresh snow they become a tripping hazard for other hikers. Also, making post-holes as you walk is extremely fatiguing and unpleasant.
Hypothermiaknow the signs. Warning signs for hypothermia include: the inability to keep fingers and toes warm, uncontrollable shivering, stumbling, extreme fatigue, trouble with fine motor skills (e.g., unzipping a jacket), slurred speech, vision problems, forgetfulness, confusion, and fainting. I tell folks to watch out for the “umbles.” Pay attention for mumbling, fumbling, and stumbling.
The best way to deal with hypothermia is to prevent it by staying well hydrated, well fed, and dry.
Frostbite. Like hypothermia, frostbite can be prevented by awareness of the conditions that cause it. Avoid exposing skin, getting wet, wearing clothing that constricts, or dehydrating yourself. Be cautious of the wind. Check with people in your party to see if anyone has had frostbite before, because people who’ve been frostbitten are more susceptible to cold injuries.
Leave No “Waste.” Leave No Trace practices are just as applicable in the winter as during the rest of the year. The cold weather will preserve your waste until spring. Make sure you take the time to dispose of it properly so as not to have it appear in trails or campsites in the spring when the snow melts. Always bring a shovel to dig out privies on the trail in the winter and use them. If no privy is available, use your shovel to dig down to bare ground and dispose of your waste in the “cathole” fashion, if possible. Make sure you are 250 feet (75 adult paces) away from trails and water.
Daylight hours are short in the winter. Darkness can come on suddenly. Begin your trip early in the day and be prepared with a headlamp just in case.
For safety, never hike alone in winter. Plan on a group size of four to ten people.
Be prepared to keep warm with nothing more than the equipment you carry. Never count on a wood fire or stove to keep you warm.
Plan to encounter winter weather at the higher elevations anytime from early fall through late spring.
If you’re not an experienced winter hiker, make your initial trips day hikes in areas that you’re familiar with from your summertime hiking. Go on trips with experienced winter hikers or sign up for a GMC Introduction to Winter Hiking and Backpacking class.
Enjoy Vermont’s beautiful wild areas in the winter - but be safe!!
For more information about enjoying the winter safely, see Winterwise A Backpacker’s Guide or the AMC Guide to Winter Camping.